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Carlos Beltran’s Trade Value

The vastly under-appreciated Carlos Beltran hit three home runs last night, boosting his line for the season to .296/.387/.590 (.417 wOBA). Although the Mets are, as expected, not in contention this season, Beltran’s return to his pre-2010 offensive form so far has been a welcome development. Given Beltran’s age and recent injury issues, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he’d simply not be able to contribute much this season. Despite the hot start, he’s in the last year of a big contract and probably not part of the Mets future. Beltran is probably a trade candidate. What sort of value does he have on the trade market?

While Beltran is most probably hitting above his talent so far this year, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock. He had a .398 wOBA over 357 plate appearances in 2009 before he went out with injury, and it is at least partly understandable that he would have some rust to shake off in his disappointing return in 2010. Beltran’s .295 ISO in 2011 is probably the biggest thing that stands out as likely to regress, but it isn’t as if he was a pea-shooter before. His walks, strikeouts, and BABIP are all in line with previous performances. ZiPS projects a .275/.363/.470 (.366 wOBA) line for the rest of Beltran’s 2011, which is very good in this run environment — about 28 runs above average over 700 plate appearances.

An important question with regard to Beltran is whether he can still play center field or not. While he did play there upon his return last season, he has spent his time in right field in 2011. That’s to be expected, I suppose, given the effect of his injuries. Assuming that he’s merely an average-ish defensive corner outfielder so far, combined with the ZiPS projection for his offense above, over 150 games he’d be at least a 3.5 win player (+28 offense – 7.5 positional adjustment + 20 NL replacement level all prorated for 150 games) — very valuable in itself.

If we assume that a marginal win is being valued at $5 million this season, his $18.5 salary for 2011 is right in line with his estimated value (since value and salary are roughly equal here, there’s no need for prorating his surplus value for a partial season). That isn’t bad at all considering the unfairly bad press Beltran’s contract sometimes gets. From the perspective of trying to trade Beltran, however, it is problematic, since that also means there isn’t any surplus value in a straight-up trade. I’m not sure if Beltran would qualify as a Type A or B free agent at this point, but even in the unlikely event that free-agent compensation remains the same in the new collective bargaining agreement, Beltran’s contract contains a clause that prevents him from being arbitration-eligible after the 2011 season (according to Cot’s), so there isn’t any potential additional value there, either.

Of course, the Mets and their likely trade partners realize this, so a trade of Beltran would need to involve cash being sent along by New York. Victor Wang’s important research (helpfully summarized here) from a few years ago gives an idea of the average surplus dollar value of prospects and draft picks. Keep in mind, however, that this research was done a few years ago, so the value of the “baseball dollar” has inflated. Moreover, teams generally seem to have been valuing their prospects more highly in recent years.

This isn’t to put down Beltran or the contract the oft-maligned Omar Minaya gave him. While injuries have limited him recently, Beltran put up legitimate superstar-level performances for the Mets from 2006 through the first half of 2009, and has had an overall career that compares well with some Hall of Famers. As his performance so far this season indicates, he still has plenty left in the tank. A team that is in contention and needs a corner outfielder should be willing to give up something for Beltran — in the right situation giving up a minor part of a team’s future for a better chance at the playoffs makes sense. Beltran does have value to a possible trade partner above simply his WAR-per-dollar value. However, most of the return on a Beltran trade will likely depends on how much cash the Mets are willing and able to send along. Given Beltran’s abilities, salary, the time remaining on the season, and the increasingly high value teams place on their prospects, it is hard to imagine the Mets getting more than a couple of C prospects in return for Beltran if they send a few million dollars along. That isn’t praise or criticism — just a description. C prospects have value. Hopefully for the Mets, they can get a piece or two that help them down the road. Hopefully for Beltran, the Mets can find a trade partner that he can help get to the playoffs.